Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Cheating and Consequences

My cousin-in-law linked to this article.  Oh my.  So, a prof lectures his students about 1/3 of the class cheating on an multiple choice exam.  It is just brutal.  For those who are unaware, a test bank is a set of questions written by someone, often hired by the textbook publisher, that can be used by profs as they put together multiple choice exams.

I used to use MC exams back at Texas Tech when I had two teaching assistants for 250 students or so. I was teaching a course--American and Texas Public Policy--that was far outside of my expertise, so I used the test bank of one of my colleagues to start.  I added questions as I went along, but still relied on the larger set of questions in the test bank from which I drew a selection.  So, this could have happened to me.  I don't think it did, but it could have.

The professor says that he has notified the publishers, the rest of the university and other folks elsewhere so this would not happen again.  That is naive.  There will always be some students who cheat, and some will actually do far more work to cheat than it would be necessary to do well i the course.  We profs face a variety of conflicting demands so we cannot spend all of our time being vigilant.  MC exams make both cheating and detection easier.  Essay exams and papers make cheating a bit harder but also detection becomes harder.  We still find it, as my last batch of papers had at least one case of plagiarism.  In a class of 600, students may have cooperated too much on writing the papers, and could have slipped through.  With larger numbers, it simply becomes easier to hide.

I have long falsely assured myself that cheaters tend to be stupid and lazy so that their cheating usually will not pay off because they will do it poorly.  That is probably true for many, but not all.  What can we do if students are willing to pay heaps of bucks to have others write papers for them?  My focus in grading and instructing my TAs in their grading is to consider how the course concepts are applied in the papers.  If someone hires an outsider to read much of the course content and then write a paper, I guess there is not much I can do to detect that.  All I can do is show the math: that a small percentage of getting caught multiplied by the penalty for getting caught (F in the course, potential expulsion) tends to outweigh the marginal impact of a slightly better grade upon four years of courses and grades. 

This arms race between some students and profs will keep on going.  No doubt about it.  Is it depressing and demoralizing?  Sure.  But if we live our lives centered around a small number of bad actors, then we are letting the terrorists win, even the academic ones.

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